The Mysterious Affair at Styles
by Agatha Christie

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Hercule Poirot mystery

John Lane: New York, 1920

John Lane / The Bodley Head: London, 1921

296 pages

March 2009

"It is always wise to suspect everybody until you can prove logically, and to your own satisfaction, that they are innocent."
Hercule Poirot

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the first book by Agatha Christie, and in it she memorably introduces her famous fictional detective, Hercule Poirot. She begins his career with a bang — or rather with a draught of poison obscurely administered — for this is a fine mystery novel, although the author includes a couple of structural standards which she wisely sloughs off in later books. I'll get to those in a moment.

This is a nice country-house locked-room murder mystery. The technicalities of the house- and room-layout (two maps are provided), and of the poison administered, are very well presented and slowly untangled. Yet we also see what Agatha Christie will do so well in many subsequent novels, the deft characterization of a variety of suspects and witnesses in the relatively few words that can be allotted to each in one book. With Hercule Poirot, psychology really is more important than physical clues, and we already see how that will come to dominate his approach.

Two elements of plot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles work well in the story, but Christie came to realize that for Hercule Poirot they are not so helpful.

The first structural feature, grown common in mystery denouements, is the courtroom summing-up at or near the end: see the Perry Mason series and an infinity of others. Christie wisely decided that Poirot's own masterly summations, right at the crime scene as the private detective wrapping up the crime-solving, is far more effective than adjourning Poirot's case to a courtroom where a judge manages and lawyers debate. Where she does employ the courtoom, as for instance in Sad Cypress, of course she makes it work dramatically; but it still must divide the climax with Poirot himself.

The other structural feature which Christie continued in some other Hercule Poirot novels is that of sidekick as narrator. Army Captain Hastings, who introduces Poirot to us, met him in Belgium during the First World War, not too long before our story opens. Similar eddies of the Great War have washed them both up at Styles in the English countryside, and this serves as a smooth introduction. But Hastings is less of an asset than Sherlock Holmes' famous Boswell, Doctor Watson — an ex-Army man himself. Poirot's cases are less adventurous if at least as ratiocinative as Holmes', so a stout fellow alongside is less valuable. And as co-investigator, Hastings is more helpful as distraction than as sleuth, as he unwittingly reports:

"Some one with a good deal of intelligence," remarked Poirot drily. " ... But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all."

[Hastings] acquiesced.

[Poirot continues,] "There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me."

I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles need not be read first among Agatha Christie novels, or first among the Hercule Poirot series. If you do, though, it is a fine introduction. Poirot is present throughout, always a great asset to enjoyability.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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